Fred Wilson in conversation with George Ciscle at MICA by Kerr Houston

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a longtime educator describe the trajectory of her career. She summarized her years as a fledgling instructor in the early 1990s, invoking what might be called a typically abstract academic interest in American history – and then she paused. “And then I saw,” she said, “Mining the Museum.”

The influence of Fred Wilson’s seminal 1992 intervention at the Maryland Historical Society is at once easily summarized and remarkably complex. Working with objects in the collection of the MHS, Wilson unsettled the museum’s comfortably white, upper-class narrative by juxtaposing silver repoussé vessels and elegant 19th-century armchairs with slave shackles and a whipping post. Texts, spotlights, recorded texts, and objects traditionally consigned to storage drew attention to the local histories of blacks and Native Americans, effectively unmaking the familiar museological narrative as a narrow ideological project.

The result was profoundly unsettling – especially given the eruption, a mere week after the show opened, of street violence in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four white officers accused of beating Rodney King. Sure, reactions varied, but they were almost always intense. Nancy Martel, the MHS’ education assistant, found herself unable to stop talking about Wilson’s work. Attendance at the museum surged. A 62-year-old retired dentist from Easton breathlessly exclaimed, in an exit survey, that the show “has the ability to promote racism and hate in young blacks, and was offensive to me!!” And the professor with whom I was speaking began to emphasize more ambitiously, in her work, the lives of African-American women, and the place of source documents and material culture in her research.

Ciscle (l) and Wilson at MICA, April 28 (photograph by Jeremy Kargon, Morgan State University)

On Friday, Wilson returned to Baltimore, to mark the 25th anniversary of Mining the Museum. In a packed auditorium in MICA’s Lazarus Center, Wilson answered questions from George Ciscle (who was largely responsible, in his role as the director of the Contemporary, for bringing Wilson to Baltimore) and members of the audience.

Lasting about 90 minutes, the conversation was generally marked by a comfortable geniality that verged on nostalgia: these were two sixty-somethings, after all, looking back to a moment that had more or less established their national reputations, and that has been the subject of nearly a quarter century of intense study. This evening was more encomium, then, than revelation – although at several points the two men surprised each other and the crowd with revealing memories and telling details. But it was also an evening that was tinged by a nagging question: what, exactly, has changed since Mining the Museum opened in 1992?

First, though, the origin story. Ciscle opened the conversation by noting that he had taken Wilson to visit several potential institutional partners in Baltimore, including the Walters, the BMA, and the Peale Museum. So why, wondered Ciscle, had Wilson chosen to work in the MHS? Wilson was clear in his response. “When I went into the Historical Society,” he remembered, “I had kind of a visceral response. I felt uncomfortable there.” This was similar, to be sure, to the account that he had offered Leslie King-Hammond 25 years ago (“I had a kind of tension in my body,” Wilson had said then. “It was a physical experience.”) But on Friday, Wilson went a step further.

 


“When I went into the Historical Society,” he remembered, “I had kind of a visceral response. I felt uncomfortable there.”


 

“I thought,” he added, “if I’m having a visceral response, and not really understanding it, I want to explore why.”

That process of exploration turned out to be a sustained one that lasted a full year. Based in New York City, Wilson began to travel regularly to Baltimore, spending his time on the train reading 19th-century slave narratives and slowly learning the particular form of Maryland’s fraught history. At first, he recalled, he simply explored the Historical Society’s considerable collection and tried to learn from those who worked closely with it, on a daily basis. “I just looked at things,” he remembered, “and I just talked to people. Really, that’s all it was.” Slowly, though, he began to see relationships between seemingly discrete objects: the recurring references to the effects of blunt physical violence, for example, in broadsheets offering rewards for runaway slaves, and the latent sadism inherent in a boot jack in the form of a nude black woman, legs spread wide.

Installation view of Mining the Museum (Metalwork 1793-1880)

Gradually, then, a goal emerged. “I was aware,” recalled Wilson, “that I wanted to bring people in with a lot of head-scratching and curiosity, but not hit them over the head with the most shocking thing. I wanted people to come in and realize that they had to do some work, to put it together.” Such a spirit was discernible, for example, in Wilson’s decision to greet visitors with a silver-plated century-old trophy for truth in advertising: emblazoned, rather ridiculously, with the word TRUTH, the globe-shaped award quietly but insistently prompted viewers to confront the term’s brazen absolutism. Which truth? Whose truth? Quietly but insistently, Wilson was pressuring the idea of a master narrative, and challenging the museum’s role as a nominally objective arbiter.

Such a process could involve a sort of soft coercion; thus, as Ciscle observed at one point, “people were intentionally manipulated through the exhibition.” The arrangement of objects was carefully plotted, evincing an interest in pacing and variation. But Wilson also took advantage of the force of the unexpected.

“I also liked,” he said on Friday, “surprise. I liked the notion of surprise, especially in a museum setting in which you don’t expect surprise.”

That willingness to deviate from the standard course was visible, for example, in his placement of a Ku Klux Klan robe – which had been donated, anonymously, to the Historical Society – in a baby carriage. Folded carefully into the diminutive stroller, the robe proved to be an especially haunting detail, as it suggested that racism is learned, inculcated, or even nurtured.

Installation view of Mining the Museum (baby carriage and hood)

To the Historical Society, though, it also proved a conundrum. Wilson has always expressed a basic respect for the employees of the MHS, upon whom he relied heavily in developing Mining the Museum. But it seems apparent, in retrospect, that the institution was simply unused to working with a contemporary creative artist. Learning of Wilson’s desire to show the KKK robe, the Historical Society suggested, rather creakily, that the entire carriage be placed in an immense vitrine, before eventually settling for a motion-activated alarm system. But even there the museum’s conservative tendency was soon undermined – for as Wilson told the crowd on Friday, with a smile, the motion detector was never hooked up.


“It was kind of overwhelming for them,” remembered Wilson. “It was a good thing, but they couldn’t stay the same; that was the problem for them. You couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.”


Such details may seem trivial, but they were arguably emblematic of even larger difficulties that immediately faced the Historical Society following the opening of Mining the Museum. “It was kind of overwhelming for them,” remembered Wilson. “It was a good thing, but they couldn’t stay the same; that was the problem for them. You couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.” The still surface had been rent; the master’s house dismantled, with the master’s tools. And of course the consequences soon spilled beyond the walls of the MHS. Wilson still recalls his astonishment at realizing, during the opening reception, that the descendants of both the slave owner and the slave named in one of the 19th-century broadsheets were both in attendance. “It was personal,” Wilson said. “I didn’t know that extent of that.”

Installation view of Mining the Museum (Cabinetmaking 1820-1860)

But, really, who could have, with any specificity? For the implications and consequences of Mining the Museum, like the consequences of slavery, proved to be complex and diverse. In 1993, the American Association of Museums granted the show a Curator’s Committee Award, citing it as the exhibition of the year. But as Ciscle and Wilson both pointed out on Friday, that recognition was accompanied by a certain pressure, as it implicitly asserted the need for change at the MHS. And so, Wilson said, the director was fired – “not because they were mad about the show as it was, but because it was so popular – which meant they had to change.”

To its credit, the Historical Society has tried in the years since to change: to learn from its past and to embrace Wilson’s critique. One of the paintings in Mining the Museum, for example, was an early 18th-century portrait of a young, white squire named Henry Darnall III; to his right, behind a balustrade, stands a young black man with a metal collar around his neck. That second figure, clearly enslaved, had gone unmentioned by the museum until Wilson shone a bright light on him. Now, 25 years later, the museum’s accompanying label has evolved, reflecting Wilson’s work. Indeed, Ciscle made this point by citing a portion of the label aloud: the painter Justus Engelhardt Kühn “depicted Darnell with his slave. This may be the earliest portrait of an American slave that survives.”

So the second boy is now at least acknowledged (albeit in a rather reductive fashion: “I think,” said Wilson on Friday, “that they could do a little better than ‘and his slave.’) And while that may seem like a small step, it was in fact typical of a more general museological turn. As the curator Lisa Corrin has pointed out, in the late 1980s and 1990s the American museum “performed a public purge of its past, owning up to the social inequities it reinforced through its unself-critical practices.”

Indeed, such a development was discernible even before Wilson arrived in Baltimore, to work on Mining the Museum – but there’s little doubt that his project only accelerated the pace of change. In any event, the assumptions that surround museums have indisputably evolved over the past quarter century. Responding to a question from the crowd, Wilson confidently proclaimed that we can now see real change in museum practice: change that has yielded what he called a more holistic effect.

Detail of Justus Engelhardt Kühn, Henry Darnall III

And yet. While the idea of a more enlightened form of museum practice appeals, a closer look can prove a bit more unnerving. After all, historical progress is relative, rather than absolute – a point also clearly by Wilson. “Everything’s in comparison,” he observed, “with what it used to be. It’s a constant process, but…” – and then he trailed off. What did he have in mind? Well, as Ciscle pointed out, the MHS is currently showing work by another artist, and the accompanying signage apparently notes that “We invited him to mine the museum.”

Such a wording is, Ciscle was implying, strikingly unselfconscious, given the celebrated and longstanding association between the MHS and Mining the Museum; indeed, it almost implies a bald historical amnesia. And while such an oversight is due, perhaps, to the fact that none of the museum staff who worked with Wilson remain at the MHS (“they’ve got this legacy,” as Wilson put it, “that they don’t really know, themselves”), it also seems to point to something more dully familiar: that is, to the forlorn repetitiveness of American racial politics.

I’m thinking, for instance, of a recent interview with Henry Keith Watson, one of four men convicted in the beating of the white trucker Reginald Denny that took place in L.A. a few days after Mining the Museum opened across the country. Recently the New York Times interviewed Watson, who flatly asserted that in the 25 years since the riots “nothing has changed, nothing. The oppression is deep rooted and it doesn’t go away. History has a way of repeating itself.” And so the residents of Flint drink poisonous water, and the residents of Ferguson feel compelled to protest – and the MHS invites another artist in to mine the museum.

Such an equivalence may seem, I realize, both too reductive and too dark. But is it, really? In the catalog that accompanied Mining the Museum, Lisa Corrin wrote that Wilson’s piece appeared “at a very specific moment in American history and in the history of the museum. I wonder,” she asked, “if we went back through the years, or if we went forward thirty years, whether Mining the Museum would have had the same impact on the museum community and museum audiences?” It was, of course, a merely hypothetical question. And yet the crowd that gathered to hear Ciscle and Wilson clearly implied that Wilson’s work remains impactful – if only because the conditions in which we live have remained so unchanged.

In a touching response written after seeing Mining the Museum, a 26-year-old local woman claimed that, among other things, “Baltimore’s streets and names will be different for me now.” I see her point: once seen in relation to a history of violence and racial injustice, this city reads in a distinct light. And yet, for the most part, the city’s streets remain largely they were in 1992: still named largely for members of a fraction of the population, they are a concrete reminder of a long history of inequity, and a map of tense social relations.

Twenty-five years ago, a younger Fred Wilson productively mined the museum, exposing a legacy of violence, exclusion, and selective looking. Today, his work still inspires – but also reminds us that there is still digging to do.

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Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.

In celebration of Mining the Museum’s  25th anniversary, Wilson returned to Baltimore in conversation with George Ciscle, MICA’s Curator-in-Residence and formerly founding director of The Contemporary for a lecture at MICA on Friday, April 28. 

Conversation sponsored by The Contemporary, Mixed Media Series, Critical Studies M.A.,  Art History, Graduate Studies, Curatorial Practice M.F.A., Communications and the Office of Community Engagement.